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Against all odds: The sheer force of immigrant startup founders

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I’ve long said that I don’t care where you come from, if your name is hard to say, or you have a “funny” accent. There’s a reason for that. For centuries, some of America’s biggest companies have been founded by immigrants. Beyond household names like Levi Strauss (Germany) and Elon Musk (South Africa), more than half of unicorns in the U.S. today came from the minds of scrappy entrepreneurs who were born outside the United States. This country’s economy wouldn’t be the same without them.

It’s not easy to move to a new country to join an industry or found a company. Especially not when political moods can easily shift to create new headwinds. We’ve seen this happen periodically with U.S. immigration policy and visa programs. (I am hopeful that President-elect Biden’s more positive stance will lessen those headwinds in the very near future.)

Yet, despite the challenges of being an immigrant, so many have carved their own path to success. What makes them so special? What is it about immigrants, in particular, that so often leads to such impressive founder stories? Why are they twice as likely as native-born Americans to become entrepreneurs?

The short answer is: Everything that seems to work against them ends up being a huge advantage. From political roadblocks, to cultural barriers, to market differences, immigrants have a knack for transforming challenges into strengths.

Business as unusual: Visas and perseverance

On the surface, one might think a great idea is all it takes to secure a coveted visa and launch a startup in the U.S. Sadly, for immigrants, there are several steps they need to take first (and a lot of red tape to get past). While the U.K., Germany, Canada, Chile and other countries offer straightforward startup visa options, the same can’t be said for the U.S., where plans for a similar startup visa were quashed in 2017. Further airtight immigration restrictions under the Trump administration make it extremely difficult for entrepreneurs trying to start their company in America.

It’s no secret that perseverance is key to success for anybody in any field, but foreign-born entrepreneurs have no choice but to make it part of their journey. Just look at Eric Yuan. He might not be a household name, but the China-born entrepreneur was denied a visa eight times in the 1990s before finally landing a job at WebEx and ultimately founding the $35 billion company we all know and love (and need) today: Zoom.

Time and time again, immigrants have proven their scrappiness and found a way to work within the United States’ complicated visa system. Whether they’re getting creative with student visa options, or have the sheer willpower to try again six or seven or eight times, even before starting their companies, immigrant founders often prove they have the resilience needed to overcome any obstacle.

New, foreign kid on the block

Once the visa situation is sorted out, immigrants also face day-to-day hurdles. For starters, founders who graduated from an unknown college in another country have an uphill battle trying to establish their own reputation and attract VC attention over more “prestigious” competitors. On top of that, immigrants today tend to be on the younger side (nearly 50% are Gen Z or millennials), so they immediately have to deal with doubters who question their maturity. Another reason why being extra-tenacious from the get-go is nonnegotiable.

Language is perhaps the biggest hurdle for immigrant founders. Anyone with an accent knows what it’s like to get funny or confused looks during basic interactions: ordering food, getting directions, finding the bathroom. Oh yeah, and raising millions of dollars in venture funding.

On the bright side, nonnative speakers quickly develop empathy and a deep appreciation for how others live. Europeans, in particular, have traditionally emphasized foreign language education more than Americans, and their proximity to other countries instills a multinational attitude from an early age. Given their life experiences and global network of contemporaries and mentors, immigrant founders have a worldview that helps them think outside the box, challenge the status quo and stand out in a new country.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere (and vice versa)

Sure, a unique work ethic and diverse perspective are great differentiators. But what does that really have to do with growing a company? While many immigrant founders may have the “it factor” that grabs investors’ initial attention, the key to success is translating that worldview into business savvy.

Entrepreneurs from large economic players like China, Germany or India have the advantage of growing up in a fairly typical global market — the lessons learned there can loosely be applied to startup scenes in similar markets like the U.S. Luckily, coming from a small country also has its perks. Namely, a unique idea that starts in a smaller market will have plenty of room to grow in a new, bigger country.

Rappi has brought an untapped delivery app model from Bogotá to stores and customers throughout South America, and Amsterdam-based communications platform MessageBird recently joined Europe’s list of unicorns with a massive funding round to help expand its presence across continents. The Bay Area doesn’t always solve all the world’s tech problems. Quite often, there’s someone with a greater worldview (an immigrant founder) who’s noticed a market hole and is already building its solution on the other side of the world.

COVID-19 has made Silicon Valley totally borderless, as VC networking and meetings can now all be done anywhere in the world. While that has leveled the playing field in some ways, it gives immigrant “underdogs” an unexpected leg up. All of a sudden, that brilliant team from the Czech Republic can collaborate, expand and scale its business from across the world.

These days, no idea is too niche for a small- or large-market immigrant founder. As long as they continue turning challenges into opportunities, immigrants will always find a way to overcome the odds and get their startup off the ground. Now that we’re living in an ever more global world, there will need to be more advocacy for taking politics out of policy if the goal is for that will, that grit and that ingenuity to prosper into potential billion-dollar startups here in the U.S.

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Vivenu, a ticketing API for events, closes a $15M Series A round led by Balderton Capital

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vivenu, a ticketing platform that offers an API for venues and promoters to customize to their needs, has closed a $15 million (€12.6 million) in Series A funding led by Balderton Capital. Previous investor Redalpine also participated.

Historically-speaking, most ticketing platform startups took a direct to consumer approach, or have provided turnkey solutions to big event promoters. But in this day and age, most events require a great deal more flexibility, not least because of the pandemic. So, by offering an API and allowing promoters that flexibility, Vivenu managed to gain traction.

Venues and event owners get a full-featured ticketing, out-of-the-box platform with full real-time dynamic control over all aspects of selling tickets including configuring prices and seating plans, leveraging customer data and insights and mastering a branded look and feel across their sales channels. It has exposed APIs enabling many different custom use cases for large international ticket sellers. Since its Seed funding in March, the company says it has sold over 2 million tickets.

Simon Hennes, CEO and co-founder of vivenu said in a statement: “We created vivenu to address the need of ticket sellers for a user-centric ticketing platform. Event organizers were stuck with solutions that heavily depend on manual processes, causing high costs, dependencies, and frustration on various levels.”

Daniel Waterhouse, Partner at Balderton said: “Vivenu has built a sophisticated product and set of APIs that gives event organisers full control of their ticketing operations.”

vivenu is also the first European investment of Aurum Fund LLC, the fund associated with the San Francisco 49ers. Also investing in the round are Angels including Sascha Konietzke (Founder at Contentful), Chris Schagen (former CMO at Contentful), Sujay Tyle (Founder at Frontier Car Group) and Tiny VC.

In March 2020, vivenu secured €1.4 million in seed funding, bringing its total funding to €14 million. Previous investors include early-stage venture capital investor Redalpine, GE32 Capital and Hansel LLC (associated with the founders of Loft).

Speaking to TechCrunch Hennes said: “You have to send your seat map to Ticketmaster, and then the account manager comes back to you with a sitemap. This goes back and forth and takes ages. With us you have a seating chart designer basically integrated into the software which you can simply change yourself.”

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Nordigen introduces free European open banking API

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Latvian fintech startup Nordigen is switching to a freemium model thanks to a free open banking API. Open banking was supposed to democratize access to banking information, but the company believes banking aggregation APIs from Tink or Plaid are too expensive. Instead, Nordigen thinks it can provide a free API to access account information and paid services for analytics and insights services.

Open banking is a broad term and means different things, from account aggregation to verifying account ownership and payment initiation. The most basic layer of open banking is the ability to view data from third-party financial institutions. For instance, some banks let you connect to other bank accounts so that you can view all your bank accounts from a single interface.

There are two ways to connect to a bank. Some banks provide an application programming interface (API), which means that you can send requests to the bank’s servers and receive data in return.

While all financial institutions should have an open API due to the European PSD2 directive, many banks are still dragging their feet. That’s why open banking API companies usually rely on screen scraping. They mimic web browser interactions, which means that it’s slow, it requires a ton of server resources and it can break.

“If you’re wondering how we’d be able to afford it, our free banking data API was designed purely with PSD2 in mind, meaning it’s lightweight in strong contrast to that of incumbents. So it wouldn’t significantly increase our costs to scale free users,” Nordigen co-founder and CEO Rolands Mesters told me.

So you don’t get total coverage with Nordigen’s API. The startup currently supports 300 European banks, which covers 60 to 90% of the population in each country. But it’s hard to complain when it’s a free product anyway.

Some Nordigen customers will probably want more information. Nordigen provides financial data analytics. It can be particularly useful if you’re a lending company trying to calculate a credit score, if you’re a financial company with minimum income requirements and more.

For those additional services, you’ll have to pay. Nordigen currently has 50 clients and expects to attract more customers with its new freemium strategy.

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Databand raises $14.5M led by Accel for its data pipeline observability tools

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DevOps continues to get a lot of attention as a wave of companies develop more sophisticated tools to help developers manage increasingly complex architectures and workloads. In the latest development, Databand — an AI-based observability platform for data pipelines, specifically to detect when something is going wrong with a datasource when an engineer is using a disparate set of data management tools — has closed a round of $14.5 million.

Josh Benamram, the CEO who co-founded the company with Victor Shafran and Evgeny Shulman, said that Databand plans include more hiring; to continue adding customers for its existing product; to expand the library of tools that its providing to users to cover an ever-increasing landscape of DevOps software, where it is a big supporter of open source resources; as well as to invest in the next steps of its own commercial product. That will include more remediation once problems are identified: that is, in addition to identifying issues, engineers will be able to start automatically fixing them, too.

The Series A is being led by Accel with participation from Blumberg Capital, Lerer Hippeau, Ubiquity Ventures, Differential Ventures, and Bessemer Venture Partners. Blumberg led the company’s seed round in 2018. It has now raised around $18.5 million and is not disclosing valuation.

The problem that Databand is solving is one that is getting more urgent and problematic by the day (as evidenced by this exponential yearly rise in zettabytes of data globally). And as data workloads continue to grow in size and use, they continue to become ever more complex.

On top of that, today there are a wide range of applications and platforms that a typical organization will use to manage source material, storage, usage and so on. That means when there are glitches in any one data source, it can be a challenge to identify where and what the issue can be. Doing so manually can be time-consuming, if not impossible.

“Our users were in a constant battle with ETL (extract transform load) logic,” said Benamram, who spoke to me from New York (the company is based both there and in Tel Aviv, and also has developers and operations in Kiev). “Users didn’t know how to organize their tools and systems to produce reliable data products.”

It is really hard to focus attention on failures, he said, when engineers are balancing analytics dashboards, how machine models are performing, and other demands on their time; and that’s before considering when and if a data supplier might have changed an API at some point, which might also throw the data source completely off.

And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of that data, you know how frustrating (and perhaps more seriously, disastrous) bad data can be. Benamram said that it’s not uncommon for engineers to completely miss anomalies and for them to only have been brought to their attention by “CEO’s looking at their dashboards and suddenly thinking something is off.” Not a great scenario.

Databand’s approach is to use big data to better handle big data: it crunches various pieces of information, including pipeline metadata like logs, runtime info, and data profiles, along with information from Airflow, Spark, Snowflake, and other sources, and puts the resulting data into a single platform, to give engineers a single view of what’s happening better see where bottlenecks or anomalies are appearing, and why.

There are a number of other companies building data observability tools — Splunk perhaps is one of the most obvious, but also smaller players like Thundra and Rivery. These companies might step further into the area that Databand has identified and is fixing, but for now Databand’s focus specifically on identifying and helping engineers fix anomalies has given it a strong profile and position.

Accel partner Seth Pierrepont said that Databand came to the VC’s attention in perhaps the best way it could: Accel needed a solution like it for its own internal work.

“Data pipeline observability is a challenge that our internal data team at Accel was struggling with. Even at our relatively small scale, we were having issues with the reliability of our data outputs on a weekly basis, and our team found Databand as a solution,” he said. “As companies in all industries seek to become more data driven, Databand delivers an essential product that ensures the reliable delivery of high quality data for businesses. Josh, Victor and Evgeny have a wealth of experience in this area, and we’ve been impressed with their thoughtful and open approach to helping data engineers better manage their data pipelines with Databand.”

The company is also used by data teams from both large Fortune 500 enterprises to smaller startups.

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